An Elegant Creature

Since we have been adventurous enough lately to wade more deeply into the murky waters of participles, gerunds, and infinitives (Riding the Rapids, The Infinitive), it seems only right (or risky?) that we stay a little longer to see what can be seen there. These three exotic creatures are all species of something called a verbal, a word that exhibits the characteristics of both a verb and an adjective or noun. An organism that complex can make for some wonderfully intricate sentences—if we can appreciate their grammatical anatomy.

Take, for example, this specimen (based, unfortunately, on a recent personal experience): Someone whom I thought was the manager was impatient and rude. We can begin by classifying it as a complex sentence: it contains an independent clause (someone was impatient and rude) and a subordinate clause (whom I thought was the manager), and indeed it goes one step further into complexity by inserting a third clause (I thought) within the subordinate clause. That peculiarity, in fact, is what we need to focus on, for something’s amiss and an infinitive can fix it.

In a first and quick analysis of this subordinate clause, all seems to be in order: thought is a transitive verb, transitive verbs take direct objects, and whom is the objective case of who, standing therefore as the object of the verb thought. That all appears to be in order, but appearances sometimes, as we know too well, deceive and deceive well. If whom is the object of the transitive verb thought, then what is the subject of the verb was? Remember, we are looking only at the subordinate clause whom I thought was the manager; a clause must be able to answer for itself, so we can’t look outside any clause to account for its own syntactical construction. In fact, there is no subject here for was; the objective case whom, however, can serve as a subject if we can make the right revision.

We have found ourselves at an evolutionary branch here. We know, of course, that subjects of verbs are usually indicated by the nominative case (he was the manager, not him was the manager), but infinitives have evolved in such a way that they employ the objective case, not the nominative, for their subjects. We know that whom is the objective case of who, and so in this subordinate clause, we can retain the whom if we change the verb was to its infinitive, to be: whom I thought to be the manager. In this construction, whom to be the manager is named an infinitive clause, and this entire clause, not just the relative pronoun whom, is the object of the transitive verb thought. Yes, there are strange creatures below the surface.

Infinitive clauses are used with verbs of thinking or perceiving, so in our example, the verb thought has triggered this use of the objective subject with an infinitive, a construction known as indirect statement. It’s an elegant phrasing, appropriate at certain occasions and out of place at others. We can loosen its tie if need be by changing whom to who, thereby making it the subject of was (who, I thought, was the manager), but note that doing so then requires us to insert commas around the clause I thought to ensure that it is read parenthetically, meaning that it should be understood as standing outside the running syntax of the clause.

Either of these two revisions (Someone whom I thought to be the manager was impatient and rude or Someone who, I thought, was the manager was impatient and rude) are acceptable according to the context in which they are needed; our original (Someone whom I thought was the manager was impatient and rude), however, cannot survive because it is a recombination of these two right revisions. And the course of nature is such, as we know, that it deals brusquely with maladaptation.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion